Why Physics and Astronomy?
The quest to understand the world around us is one of the noblest of mankind’s many adventures. By discovering the basic laws of nature, we are satisfying our inherent desire to understand our world and, at the same time, we are contributing toward a better quality of life for all generations to follow. Because physics is the most fundamental of the sciences, it plays the central role in these efforts. Whether we look to Albert Einstein or Richard Feynman in the 20th century, Isaac Newton in the 17th century or back to Archimedes in the third century BC, physicists have always been the ones to ask the difficult questions and to find the unexpected and challenging answers.
Physicists have always taken the whole of nature as their laboratory. By trying to understand their observations in terms of the most basic ideas, physicists have been led by their creativity and powers of reasoning to uncover fundamental but unexpected theories of nature. Questions about the speed of light led Einstein to develop his theories of relativity. Questions arising from earlier failures to understand data from thermal radiation experiments led Max Planck to propose the first step toward the theory of quantum mechanics. Questions arising from the interaction of light with electrons led Feynman to construct a picture of these interactions which underpins most of our ideas about elementary particles.
It is hard to describe to a newcomer the thrill of doing physics. For some, the thrill comes from being among the first to observe a new phenomenon, such as the physicists who first saw high-temperature superconductivity in 1987. For others, it is the sudden realization that they have finally hit upon a theory that explains data which has been perplexing scientists for years. Imagine Neils Bohr’s excitement when his theory of the hydrogen atom exactly predicted the unexplained spectral data which had been accumulating for years. Imagine the exhilaration of an Einstein or a Feynman in realizing that they had opened completely new vistas in our understanding of the natural world.
Even if your answers do not become as famous as those of Einstein, or Bohr, or Planck, as a working physicist, you will face difficult questions and you will experience the thrill of finding the unexpected and challenging answers through your creativity, training, and powers of reasoning just like Einstein or Bohr or Feynman.
Why Physics and Astronomy at WVU?
Your bachelors degree in physics from West Virginia University will give you the training necessary to answer the challenging questions you will face as a working scientist. The physics and astronomy degree from WVU will prepare you for an exciting future, whether you join the workforce after graduation as do 45% of the physics bachelor degree recipients nationwide, or whether you continue your training in graduate school as 33% of the degree recipients do, or whether you specialize in another field like the remaining 22% by going to graduate school in astronomy, meteorology, geophysics, engineering, medicine, education, business, or law. Students who have graduated before you at WVU have taken many of these routes toward their careers as working scientists.
The physics major to faculty ratio in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at West Virginia University provides significant one-on-one contact for the student. After the first two introductory courses, physics classes will be small enough (usually less than 10) so that individual attention is the norm. With active research projects and a graduate program, the physics faculty are “working” scientists who know the thrill of doing physics. While still an undergraduate, many students also become “working” scientists through employment opportunities in our research and teaching labs. The Society of Physics Students (SPS) and Astronomy Club promotes additional interactions among the students and faculty.
In high school, it will help if you get a strong foundation in algebra, trigonometry, and pre-calculus so that you can begin calculus and introductory physics in your first year at WVU. After these courses and your modern physics course, you will be ready to start on your upper division physics courses at the beginning of your junior year. Whether you opt for the more concentrated Bachelor of Science in Physics and Astronomy or for the more flexible Bachelor of Arts in Physics and Astronomy, you will get a solid foundation in the basic principles and techniques of physics through courses in mechanics, electricity and magnetism, quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, and experimental physics, in addition to being able to choose specialized courses in optics, solid state, nuclear, astrophysics, plasma physics, space/geophysics, etc.
After your Bachelors in Physics and Astronomy?
The American Institute of Physics regularly surveys physics bachelor degree recipients during the summer after they graduate. The numbers quoted below summarize their yearly findings from the 1980s through to the present with only small year-to-year fluctuations in the statistics. These trends represent the experience of our WVU graduates.
Of the more than 4000 Physics Bachelor degree recipients nationwide each year, 55% continue on to graduate school and 45% enter the job market. Well over 90% of the physics majors who enter graduate school are paid by their departments while pursuing an advanced degree. The students receive fellowships or are employed as research assistants or teaching assistants. Typical graduate student salaries range from $10,000 to $18,000 per year, and their tuition and fees are waived as well. In contrast, industry continues to be a dominant employer of new physics bachelors entering the workforce, and the average starting salary now exceeds $36,000 per year. Both large and small companies actively recruit physics majors because of their strong problem-solving abilities. Also, the computer and mathematical skills acquired by physics majors make them attractive to companies. Other employers of new physics bachelors are the federal government, state governments, the military, and high schools.
Bachelor’s degree physicists have excellent job prospects in our technological society. An idea of current industrial opportunities is available online: career information for professional physicists is available from the American Physical Society employment statistics are available from the American Institute of Physics. Physics is also a fantastic path to a career in data science: here is a guide from discoverdatascience.org which gives ideas and information about types of data science careers.